A military hero and influential figure in the high society of his day, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was constantly besieged with female attention. From the moment of his military achievements at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815, his legendary status was secure. Many women threw themselves at him, while others who were more scrupulous (or happily married) sought instead to be his closest confidante.
In the early 2010s, I was offered the chance to use a largely untouched archive of letters, family diaries and artefacts relating to Lady Georgiana Lennox, known as ‘Georgy’, and her friendship with the Duke of Wellington. Most of the letters had never before been published, a remarkable fact considering how well documented Wellington’s life is, especially in the wake of the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo in 2015.
The archive demonstrates how powerful and potent letter writing was at this time, used as it was to share news, gossip and ideas. Georgy had cherished her letters from the duke alongside other precious objects and memories of a man she idolised, who was one of her closest friends. The discovery of these letters was the beginning of a remarkable journey for me – while piecing back together the story of Georgy’s life and her relationship with Wellington, new truths about the duke himself also emerged.
The duke’s inner circle
Wellington and his wife Kitty had been a love match from his life back home in Ireland, before he had served with the British Army in India, from 1797–1805. The couple had married upon his return, having not seen each other or spoken to each other for eight years. It quickly became apparent that they were not well matched, and were soon to live almost entirely separate lives from each other. Knowing this, the position of the duke’s chief companion became fiercely fought over by his many female friends.
To be included in Wellington’s inner circle of friends was a position of privilege and power. This extended from his original staff officers during the Peninsular War, to the many political allies who stuck by him during his turbulent political career in later years. Through it all, family, friends and relatives held a special place in the duke’s life, and often benefited from official positions in the army or government he was able offer to them.
Lady Georgiana Lennox was well embedded in the duke’s inner sanctum throughout her life. She was the third daughter of the 4th Duke of Richmond, who was himself a great friend and drinking companion of the duke from his time as chief secretary in Ireland in 1807. Richmond had then been lord lieutenant of Ireland, having relocated his large family of 14 children to Dublin in a bid to live more economically. Georgy lived out the early years of her teens in Ireland, where Wellington (then Sir Arthur Wellesley) had already gained notoriety after his adventures securing Southern India against the French; the most famous battles being those at Seringapatam and Assaye. Already having trouble with his wife Kitty, who did not enjoy the same partying lifestyle as he did, Wellington became attached to the young and carefree Lennox girls.
Despite their 26-year age gap, Wellington and Georgy developed a steady and unwavering friendship. Every day, they would ride across Phoenix Park together and were often present at the same dinners and evening entertainments. Georgy undoubtedly developed a youthful crush on the duke, who was handsome, distinguished and uncommonly tall for the time, with fine features and a distinctive hooked nose. His confidence had grown from strength to strength whilst in India, where he had proven himself to be talented leader on the battlefield and beyond. Despite being stationed in Ireland for only a year, the duke cemented a close connection with the entire Richmond family – and an especially close friendship with the young Georgy Lennox – before being recalled to Europe to fight against Napoleon’s forces.
The Duchess of Richmond’s ball
As Europe enjoyed a short-lived period of peace after the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814, the Lennox family received a new posting to Brussels, where the Duke of Richmond was to become commander of the reserve forces. Brussels was a dream location for the socially ambitious Duchess of Richmond, who had seven daughters to find marriages for. Balls were held by all the major British families who were living in Brussels, and suitable dancing partners were plentiful.
As luck would have it, Georgy’s mother threw a ball the night that Napoleon’s advance into Belgium was announced; an occasion now known as the legendary Duchess of Richmond’s ball. Georgy had the privilege of sitting next to the Duke of Wellington at dinner, where he gave her a precious miniature of himself by the renowned Belgium artist Simon Jacques-Rochard, an object she would treasure forever. Yet after dinner, a mud-splattered messenger arrived having galloped through the night. He brought news that Napoleon was on his way, and Wellington announced that battle was imminent. Many of the officers present dashed into the night to re-join their regiments, some had no time to change and fought in their dancing shoes. Many would never return.
Georgy, like so many others, had her own memories of this dramatic evening. She spent the days during the battle in Brussels working with her sisters to tend to the wounded returning from the front. Her anxious letters home shed light on the fear felt by those left behind. She wrote to her beloved aunt Lady Bathurst: “the first sight of the poor wounded was sickening, and each litter as it came into the town, filled us with intense anxiety to know whom it contained.” The presence of the Duke of Wellington at the battle helped the Allies secure a brilliant and absolute victory against the French. This second victory over Napoleon made the duke the hero of his generation.
‘My Dearest Georgy’
Georgy’s flirtatious friendship with Wellington continued strongly in the years directly after the battle of Waterloo, when the duke was stationed at Cambrai, France, (then called Cambray). Here, Georgy and her sisters would often stay for months at a time in order to enjoy the many dinner parties and balls held by the duke and his staff officers.
Wellington held many a wild house party in Cambrai, with Georgy later recalling the kind of games they used to enjoy. A favourite was called ‘riding the coach’, where ladies would be raced around the corridors on rugs, dragged by the male guests who wore harnesses. The many gossipy letters that passed between Georgy and the duke show a more playful side to the man now often remembered by history as a humourless disciplinarian. They reveal a funny, easy-going man who loved his friends, and loved to gossip. The duke always referred to Georgy as ‘My Dearest Georgy’ in his letters, which was quite unique for him for the time, as other friends and family were always referred to by their full title.
Georgy spent her twenties living between relatives, her father having tragically died of hydrophobia (more commonly called rabies) in 1819 at the age of 55. She struggled to get over her love for the duke and find a suitable husband. She had a few false starts, including one with the famous diarist and notorious adulterer Charles Greville, and unusually did not marry until the age of 29. She finally found happiness with William Fitzgerald-de Ros; later the 23rd Baron de Ros. She and William went on to have three children, and a very happy relationship. They continued to see Wellington regularly, staying for a month at a time either at the duke’s estate of Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, or at Walmer Castle, his residence as lord warden of the Cinque Ports. In London, they regularly dined together or used the duke’s box at the opera. Georgy’s second daughter Blanche was given the middle name Arthur, and the duke happily agreed to be her godfather.
An unshakable friendship
Many years of friendship followed, through which the duke was twice prime minister (from 1828–30 and again in 1834). When the duke died in 1852, Georgy was devastated and lamented in her diary: “From childhood I loved and venerated him and invariably received the most unremitting kindness from him, and so many years of unclouded friendship cannot be given with without much suffering.” Indeed, the duke had been an unshakable friend throughout her whole life.
Living well into her 90s, Georgy became one of the last people alive who had been a close friend of the ‘Iron Duke’, as he became known. When Wellington’s victory at Waterloo was celebrated each year, she was besieged with visits, telegrams and flowers. Everyone clamoured to hear the tales of her life alongside the greatest military hero of the time. Aged 93, she published, at the behest of her friends, My Recollections of the Great Duke of Wellington, which has proved to be an invaluable source of information for historians trying to piece together what happened at the legendary Duchess of Richmond’s ball, and what life in Brussels was like at the time.
After Georgy died in 1891 her legacy continued through her two surviving children. The duke’s letters to Georgy have been passed down the de Ros family for generations, and have always been kept in their private archive, which might explain why the truth of this special friendship has been hidden for so long. Now however, through exhaustive research into Georgy and her relationship with the duke, new light can be shed on his character and the life of his ‘Dearest Georgy’.
Alice Marie Crossland is the author of Wellington’s Dearest Georgy: The Life and Loves of Lady Georgiana Lennox (Unicorn, 2016).